The Sack of Baltimore

The Sack of Baltimore

On this day in our Driscoll family history, 20 June 1631, Baltimore [Ireland] fell victim to a what has become known as a horrendous attack by pirates on the sleeping village of Baltimore known as "The Sack of Baltimore". At that time among the O'Driscoll family that lived in the village where a population of settlers from England who had arrived some years earlier to work the lucrative pilchard fishery under lease from the O'Driscoll chieftain, Sir Fineen O'Driscoll. Piracy was rife along the shores of West Cork, much of it of a home-grown variety; indeed the settlement's founder, Thomas Crooke, stood accused of involvement himself. However, the danger, in this case, was from much farther afield.

After the day's work for the adults and the days play for the children they all went to bed thinking it was just another night in Baltimore. However, thanks to a captive named John Hackett who was out to save his own neck he knew the original target was Kinsale, but Hackett declared the harbor there 'too hot' to enter and in return for his freedom he offered to take Reis to a defenseless village of fishermen known as Baltimore. Undetected, the pirates anchored outside the harbor no more than a musket shot from Baltimore's beaches. Late in the evening of 20 June, they launched an attack on the sleeping town and before the dawn of the next day they had begun torching the thatched roofs of the houses and carrying off with both young and old whom they took from their beds. Moving on to the main village, the pirates took more captives before musket fire and the beating of drums alerted the remaining villagers and persuaded Reis to end the raid. By that time more than 100 men, women, and children had been taken. They were herded back to the ships, that took them away from the coves of West Cork and into the slave markets of North Africa.

The raid on Baltimore, immortalized in verse by the poet Thomas Davis, was the worst-ever attack by Barbary corsairs on the mainland of Ireland or Britain. Most of the names in the official report sound English, but it is likely that there were also a few native Irish among the prisoners and quite obvious O'Driscoll's were living among the fishermen in the town that were taken. Driscoll women married settlers and took their names. So where they could they kept the public from knowing Driscoll's were also the victims of the raid, but in the poem, there is a line after stabbing an attacker to death and some say perhaps taking her own life to avoid capture. comes the line "The maid that Bandon gallant sought is chosen for the Dey:  She's safe — he’s dead — she stabbed him in the midst of his Serai!  And when to die a death of fire that noble maid they bore,  She only smiled, O'Driscoll’s child; she thought of Baltimore…" This was believed to be in reference to one of the victims who had a maiden name of O'Driscoll, fighting back to kill her attacker and then take her own life.

Initially, O'Driscoll kept the names of his family off the list. Whether it was the embarrassment that his family were taken so easily, or to prevent others from getting ideas about kidnapping his family, we'll never know. But what we do know, is that three women were recorded as having been ransomed it is unknown how many others were ransomed O'Driscoll wasn't interested in admitting his sir name were taken he certainly wasn't going to admit to paying for their return. It is unknown what happened to the kidnapped men women and children, but for many, it would have been to end their days as galley slaves or concubines in the harems of Algiers.


For his part, John Hackett was arrested and hanged on a clifftop outside the village.

The Sack of Baltimore has been a feeding frenzy for conspiracy theories. They generally point the finger at the rapacious Sir Walter Coppinger who had been seeking to take the village from the O'Driscolls, oust the settlers and secure it for himself. Whether by accident or by design, the pirates carried out part of Coppinger's plan for him. As in the aftermath of the raid, the surviving villagers moved further inland to Skibbereen and elsewhere in search of greater security and Coppinger's plans for the village were realized. The Sack marked the end of the 400-year reign of the O'Driscolls as overlords of Baltimore, they went from Kings and fisherman to slaves but they never gave up and eventually.

The O'Driscoll's lands once stretched over a thousand square miles between the Kenmare and the Bandon rivers, ruled over by a king O'Driscoll. By 1200 their domain was a  coastal strip between Castlehaven and Roaringwater Bay.

They built nine castles around Baltimore. Dun na Sead, the fort of the jewels, is in the village; Dun na Long, the fort of the ships, is on Sherkin Island; Dun na Oir, the fort of gold, is on Cape Clear, and the other castles of Cloghane on the island in Lough Ine, Donegal at Reengaroga, Oldcourt, Castlehaven, Ardagh and Rincolisky at Whitehall. Ruins worth seeing include Baltimore, Cape Clear, and Sherkin Island.

Fineen O'Driscoll, the Rover, was the most well-known member of the O'Driscoll clan for both good and bad that he may have done to get what he had. At the end of the 16th century, he was the lord of Baltimore. He worked for the English by confiscating Spanish ships and was knighted in 1587.

It is said that when he died, he died lonely and poor

In the Thomas Davis Poem, The Sack of Baltimore Davis Speculates about the fate of one of the women captives, in this verse a young man from Brandon - a "Gallant" was due to marry a woman named O'Driscoll. But she was abducted to Algiers, where the governing Dey selected her as his serai or harem:

His O'Driscoll's fate would have been particularly grisly. In the method of execution, victims were tied to a stake and surrounded by a bonfire. The heat of which would roast them slowly, cooking them the way a pig or other food is roasted over a fire. O'Driscoll's child would have hardly had anything to smile about.

The maid that Bandon gallant sought is chosen for the Dey
She was to marry a Gallant from Brandon - was chosen by the pirate for the Dey
She's safe — he’s dead — she stabbed him in the midst of his Serai! 
She is safe - there would be no way of being safe by killing the Gov, but if she killed a pirate she would be safe for the time being… especially if the pirate went to rape her as they raped and pillaged the town.
And when to die a death of fire that noble maid they bore, 
She may have now been in her home as the rooftops were lit on fire, and burned to the ground
She only smiled, O'Driscoll’s child; she thought of Baltimore
So while she was dying, we can all agree she didn't smile, unless she lost her mind; but for the sake of Davis, let's try to find a reason she may have smiled. She could smile knowing she killed her attacker or knowing she wasn't taken as a prisoner, wouldn't be raped and was dying in her homeland of Baltimore. So while I doubt, she smiled, there were reasons to smile knowing she beat a terrible life of rape, beatings, and torture.

 It could also just be that Davis found the best words he could to make a rhyme and include an O'Driscoll in his poem. But, there was widespread belief that O'Driscolls were taken, but their names kept off the lists by Sir Fineen O'Driscoll to prevent future raids and future ransoms. 

Some say the story might be fiction as there were no cases of an Algerine Governor being stabbed by their harem slave. It has also been pointed out that there were no O'Driscoll's on the list of abductees. But, then again very few of the women taken were actually named and none of the married women named were provided with maiden names. It is not only possible but likely that one or more of the townspeople would have been an O'Driscoll and that Davis based his poem on oral tradition. There were a lot more stories told by town's people that were handed down over generations, more of those stories than stories that were recorded. Also, much of what was recorded was controlled. Davis suggests the noble young woman from Baltimore were selected as sexual playthings by rich powerful men, and he was absolutely right.

As for O'Driscoll killing the Governor, if it was a Governor and not a pirate than just as Sir O'Driscoll wasn't interested in announcing that his family was among those taken I am sure an Algiers Governor being killed by a slave wouldn't make front page news. But we could be reading this all the wrong way, the fire we see could have been on the night of the raid, and the life taken, could very well have been her own, smiling because she escaped capture, escaped having been raped, sold worked till death.

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When Europeans Were Slaves: Research Suggests White Slavery Was Much More Common Than Previously Believed

Contactphoto:Jeff Grabmeier

Jeff Grabmeier
Ohio State News
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Editor's note (3/21/20): For an update on this story, visit:

Why is a 16-year-old book on slavery so popular now?

A new study suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 – a far greater number than had ever been estimated before.

In a new book, Robert Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, developed a unique methodology to calculate the number of white Christians who were enslaved along Africa’s Barbary Coast, arriving at much higher slave population estimates than any previous studies had found.

Most other accounts of slavery along the Barbary coast didn’t try to estimate the number of slaves, or only looked at the number of slaves in particular cities, Davis said. Most previously estimated slave counts have thus tended to be in the thousands, or at most in the tens of thousands. Davis, by contrast, has calculated that between 1 million and 1.25 million European Christians were captured and forced to work in North Africa from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Davis’s new estimates appear in the book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan).

Robert Davis
Robert Davis

“Much of what has been written gives the impression that there were not many slaves and minimizes the impact that slavery had on Europe,” Davis said. “Most accounts only look at slavery in one place, or only for a short period of time. But when you take a broader, longer view, the massive scope of this slavery and its powerful impact become clear.”

Davis said it is useful to compare this Mediterranean slavery to the Atlantic slave trade that brought black Africans to the Americas. Over the course of four centuries, the Atlantic slave trade was much larger – about 10 to 12 million black Africans were brought to the Americas. But from 1500 to 1650, when trans-Atlantic slaving was still in its infancy, more white Christian slaves were probably taken to Barbary than black African slaves to the Americas, according to Davis.

“One of the things that both the public and many scholars have tended to take as given is that slavery was always racial in nature – that only blacks have been slaves. But that is not true,” Davis said. “We cannot think of slavery as something that only white people did to black people.”

During the time period Davis studied, it was religion and ethnicity, as much as race, that determined who became slaves.

“Enslavement was a very real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean, or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland,” he said.

Pirates (called corsairs) from cities along the Barbary Coast in north Africa – cities such as Tunis and Algiers – would raid ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as well as seaside villages to capture men, women and children. The impact of these attacks were devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior.

Although hundreds of thousands of Christian slaves were taken from Mediterranean countries, Davis noted, the effects of Muslim slave raids was felt much further away: it appears, for example, that through most of the 17th century the English lost at least 400 sailors a year to the slavers.

Even Americans were not immune. For example, one American slave reported that 130 other American seamen had been enslaved by the Algerians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic just between 1785 and 1793.

Davis said the vast scope of slavery in North Africa has been ignored and minimized, in large part because it is on no one’s agenda to discuss what happened.

The enslavement of Europeans doesn’t fit the general theme of European world conquest and colonialism that is central to scholarship on the early modern era, he said. Many of the countries that were victims of slavery, such as France and Spain, would later conquer and colonize the areas of North Africa where their citizens were once held as slaves. Maybe because of this history, Western scholars have thought of the Europeans primarily as “evil colonialists” and not as the victims they sometimes were, Davis said.

Davis said another reason that Mediterranean slavery has been ignored or minimized has been that there have not been good estimates of the total number of people enslaved. People of the time – both Europeans and the Barbary Coast slave owners – did not keep detailed, trustworthy records of the number of slaves. In contrast, there are extensive records that document the number of Africans brought to the Americas as slaves.

So Davis developed a new methodology to come up with reasonable estimates of the number of slaves along the Barbary Coast. Davis found the best records available indicating how many slaves were at a particular location at a single time. He then estimated how many new slaves it would take to replace slaves as they died, escaped or were ransomed.

“The only way I could come up with hard numbers is to turn the whole problem upside down – figure out how many slaves they would have to capture to maintain a certain level,” he said. “It is not the best way to make population estimates, but it is the only way with the limited records available.”

Putting together such sources of attrition as deaths, escapes, ransomings, and conversions, Davis calculated that about one-fourth of slaves had to be replaced each year to keep the slave population stable, as it apparently was between 1580 and 1680. That meant about 8,500 new slaves had to be captured each year. Overall, this suggests nearly a million slaves would have been taken captive during this period. Using the same methodology, Davis has estimated as many as 475,000 additional slaves were taken in the previous and following centuries.

The result is that between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly 1 million and quite possibly as many as 1.25 million white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.

Davis said his research into the treatment of these slaves suggests that, for most of them, their lives were every bit as difficult as that of slaves in America.

“As far as daily living conditions, the Mediterranean slaves certainly didn’t have it better,” he said.

While African slaves did grueling labor on sugar and cotton plantations in the Americas, European Christian slaves were often worked just as hard and as lethally – in quarries, in heavy construction, and above all rowing the corsair galleys themselves.

Davis said his findings suggest that this invisible slavery of European Christians deserves more attention from scholars.

“We have lost the sense of how large enslavement could loom for those who lived around the Mediterranean and the threat they were under,” he said. “Slaves were still slaves, whether they are black or white, and whether they suffered in America or North Africa.”

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